The adult comedy The Happytime Murders is set in the underbelly of Los Angeles, where puppets and humans co-exist. From director Brian Henson, the film follows two clashing detectives – a human named Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and a puppet named Phil Philips (played by puppeteer Bill Barretta) – who are forced to work together to solve the mystery of who is brutally murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang puppet show.
On October 12, 2017, Collider (along with a handful of other online outlets) was invited to the Santa Clarita, Calif. set, where we got to talk with Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil’s human secretary Bubbles. During the interview, she spoke about how Bubbles identifies more with puppets than humans, playing with the old-fashioned secretary-detective relationship, what human-puppet relationships are like in this world, how easy it is to stop seeing the puppeteers who work the puppets, the joy of working with an expert like Brian Henson, how connected she feels to her puppet co-star, and what it’s like to improvise with the puppets/puppeteers.
Collider: What can you tell us about playing Phil’s secretary, Bubbles?
MAYA RUDOLPH: Bubbles is devoted and hardworking. She is a human in a human-puppet world, but I think that she feels more comfortable and identifies more on the puppet side. She’s disappointed in the human department. She comes with some baggage. She and Phil really seem to have a very wonderful relationship. It’s that good old-fashioned secretary-detective relationship, but obviously with a twist, because he’s a puppet.
What are the human-puppet relationships like, in this world?
RUDOLPH: It’s very interesting how the puppets have been developed as these entertainers. There’s a class system to it. I feel like it’s actually really beautifully thought out. It’s clearly thought out from the mind of someone who thinks like a puppet and thinks about puppets before they think about people. That’s Brian [Henson]. That’s really him living the experience of working with puppets, his whole career and seeing their ins and outs, in their everyday. It’s really fascinating how that’s translated in the human world. What I love is how you get to see the many levels, and that includes the very deeply seedy, dark, ugly underbelly, which is also very fun. We all identify and feel connected to these puppets and, just like anything else, you want to see them in real-world circumstances. It’s the payoff of all these years of having these puppets in our lives. You’re like, “Oh, my god, I’m getting to see them barf on the street, have sex, curse somebody out, and act like humans!” It’s really beautifully thought up and it’s really fascinating.
Is there anything more between Bubbles and Phil?
RUDOLPH: No. I have not, personally, experienced any puppet sex, myself, as an actor, but I do think that she and Phil have a loving relationship. They have a very special relationship. It’s one of those relationships that, when you’re in it and you have a connection to someone, you can’t really put your finger on what it is. I think it’s one of those emotionally symbiotic, beautiful things that happen in life, where you realize, “No, I really, truly love this person, or puppet, for who they are?” You see through the color of their felt, or their skin, or whatever it is, and you see the true soul. That is what they have, and it’s probably far more powerful than the relationships that Phil is used to, in his day-to-day puppet life.
Was it hard for you to work with the puppets and not see the puppeteers?
RUDOLPH: It’s the opposite. The first time I got to work with puppets was on Sesame Street, and it’s weird how you have this gravitational pull towards the puppet and not the puppeteer. I first met (puppeteer) Kevin [Cash] when I worked with Elmo, and Kevin is amazing. He’s the end all, be all. You talk to him and you have this great, interesting conversation with an adult human being, and then the puppet comes out and you’re just connected. All of the puppeteers have that power. It’s very interesting. It’s so fascinating to watch them. I catch myself watching them more. I’ll watch Bill Barretta, who’s Phil, on the monitor while he’s operating Phil, or if they’re setting up a shot, and it’s weird how fluid Phil is while he’s talking to me. By the way, half the stuff we do is not scripted. The way that Phil is moving and saying things to me, and moving his hair back or putting his hat down or scratching his chin, is more than what the puppeteer is doing. It’s amazing! It’s such a cool experience. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever done.
What’s it like to work with Brian Henson?
RUDOLPH: It’s like a dream, a gift, and a joy. I’ve never really been in his world before. I feel like I’ve stepped into something that’s so well thought out and has so much history to it. This is a world that he lives in, and it’s totally foreign to me. All of this is new to us. We’re all sitting on platform stages, and there are two puppeteers operating a puppet, as opposed to one. All the things that are fascinating to us, that we can’t believe, are just normal to them. It’s its own universe. Brian completely opened the door to this world for me and allowed me into what I feel is a really magical and beautiful universe. It’s really fun. It’s funny because I feel like being a human is almost secondary in this world. We’ve got to get the puppets right, so a lot of times, we’ll be shooting and go, “God, that’s a really intense angle for a 45-year-old woman that’s a mother of four. That’s really low.” But the puppets are not tall, so we need to shoot from their point of view. That’s important, and I get it.
Is there any other technical stuff that’s been challenging?
RUDOLPH: The challenging stuff has just been interesting. I love it. It’s new, and that’s exciting. It’s not challenging for me. I feel like I’m doing a lot of the non-heavy lifting when somebody is in full head-to-toe green, their face is covered and they’re under another person, and I’m just sitting there chatting with the puppet. There’s no challenge for me.
When it came to the puppet world, did you have questions about how things worked or was it all in the script?
RUDOLPH: When we first met, Brian showed me some of the tests they were doing. There’s the world of Bill operating and being in the room, and then there’s the world of having to see a puppet walk and having to see something that actually involves legs, and that’s a different system and a different rig. That was actually really helpful because it would let me know that the puppet would be slightly larger than what I’m used to. It was pretty seamless, I have to say. I grew up with The Muppet Show and Saturday Night Live. For me, they’re really a part of the same world, in terms of a variety show and characters and sense of humor. Brian and I talked about that being part of our system and something that’s very familiar to us. One thing that I didn’t anticipate was that I really feel connected to Phil. He’s a puppet, so I don’t get to see him, all the time. If I haven’t been at work in two weeks, I really miss him. I work with Bill, but I work with Phil, too. I love working with Bill. He’s amazing. But when Phil and I do scenes together, I have a little crush on Phil. It’s really interesting. He looks at me with his facial expressions, and we talk to each other when we’re not shooting. It’s really amazing!
You’ve worked in so many different comedy environments. What’s unique about the comedy in this movie?
RUDOLPH: I don’t know. I feel like I’m at a point now, in my life, where if it’s somebody like Melissa [McCarthy] that’s calling me, who’s known me since I was 24 and we’ve done comedy together since The Groundlings and she knows my sense of humor, so she’s inviting me to inject my voice, then I’ll say yes. I think the unique element is the puppets. This group of people – these puppeteers – a lot of whom came from Puppet Up!, are doing improv puppetry. There aren’t many people in the world that do that. It’s such a high skill level. I bring improvisation when I’m asked, and that’s what I’m comfortable doing. If you do that with one of these puppeteers, it’s seamless. It’s like doing a scene with a human being.
The Happytime Murders opens in theaters on August 24th.